NEW YORK (CBS/AP) – Pop artist Claes Oldenburg, who transformed the mundane into the monumental with his oversized sculptures of a baseball bat, clothespin and other objects, has died at 93.
Oldenburg – who grew up in Chicago – died Monday morning in New York, according to his daughter, Maartje Oldenburg. He had been in poor health since falling and breaking his hip a month ago.
Swedish-born Oldenburg was inspired by the sculptor’s abiding interest in form, the Dadaist’s revolutionary notion of bringing ready-made objects into the realm of art, and the ironic fascination and pop artist’s outlaw for lowbrow culture – reimagining ordinary objects in fantastical contexts.
Oldenburg was born in 1929 in Stockholm, Sweden, the son of a diplomat. But young Claes (pronounced klahs) spent much of his childhood in Chicago, where his father, Gosta, served as Swedish consul general for many years. Oldenburg eventually became an American citizen.
Oldenburg attended the Latin School of Chicago on the Gold Coast and attended college at Yale University from 1946 to 1950 before returning to Chicago and studying at the School of the Art Institute.
Oldenburg also dipped his toes into the world of journalism in Chicago — working as a reporter for the City News Bureau. The legendary local news service also counted Mike Royko, Seymour Hirsh and Kurt Vonnegut among its many famous alumni.
During this time, his biography notes, Oldenburg opened a studio and enjoyed some of his early sales at the 57th Street Art Fair in the Hyde Park area. He moved to New York in 1956.
Oldenburg’s first burst of publicity came in the early 1960s, when a type of performance art called the Happening began to appear in Manhattan’s artier neighborhoods.
A 1962 New York Times article described it as “far-off entertainment more sophisticated than twisting, more psychological than a seance, and twice as infuriating as a game of charades”.
Oldenburg sculpture was also becoming known during this period, particularly those in which objects such as a telephone or an electric mixer were rendered in soft, bendable vinyl. “The phone is a very sexy shape,” Oldenburg told the Los Angeles Times.
One of his first large-scale works was “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks”, which juxtaposed large lipstick on caterpillars resembling those that propel army tanks. The original – with its suggestion of “make love (lipstick) not war (tanks)” – was commissioned by students and faculty and installed at Yale in 1969.
The original version deteriorated and was replaced by a steel, aluminum, and fiberglass version at another location on the Yale campus in 1974.
In Chicago, Oldenburg’s best-known work is “Batcolumn” (1977), a 100-foot lattice steel baseball bat that hangs outside the Harold Washington Social Security Center at 600 W. Madison St. .in the West Loop Gate. As the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events puts it:
“Chicago’s skyscrapers, chimneys, neoclassical columns, steel bridge braces, and construction cranes inspired the design of Claes Oldenburg’s heroic-scale baseball bat sculpture. Observing the terrain Chicago dish, the Swedish-born artist once commented, “The real art here is the architecture, or anything that really stands.”
“Batcolumn” was funded by the federal government under a program to include a budget for artwork whenever a large federal building was constructed. It took place not far from the famous Picasso sculpture in Chicago, inaugurated in 1967.
“Batcolumn,” Oldenburg told the Tribune, “tries to be as non-decorative as possible – simple, structural, and direct. That, I think, is also part of Chicago: a very factual, realistic object. The last thing, though , was to have it against the sky, that’s what it was made for.”
He had considered making it red, but “the color would just have taken the focus away from the linear effect. Now the more buildings they destroy here, the better.”
Not all Chicagoans were happy. Around the same time as the sympathetic Tribune interview, another Tribune writer, architecture critic Paul Gapp, decried the trend towards “silly public sculpture” and called Oldenburg a “veteran of man and poseur who has long since convinced the art establishment that he was to be taken seriously.”
Early in his career he was a key developer of vinyl “soft sculpture” – an alternative way to transform ordinary objects – and also helped invent the quintessential 1960s art event, the “Happening”. .
“When I’m served a plate of food, I see shapes and forms, and sometimes I don’t know whether to eat the food or look at it,” he said. In May 2009, a 1976 Oldenburg sculpture, “Typewriter Eraser”, sold for a record $2.2 million at a post-war and contemporary art auction in New York.
Other famous Oldenburg large sculptures include “Clothespin,” a 45-foot steel clothespin installed near Philadelphia City Hall in 1976; the 1988 “Spoonbridge and Cherry” sculpture outside the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis “Crusoe Umbrella”, for the Civic Center in Des Moines, Iowa, completed in 1979; “Flashlight”, 1981, University of Las Vegas; and “Tumbling Tacks”, Oslo, 2009.
“It’s always a matter of interpretation, but I tend to consider all of my work to be completely pure,” Oldenburg told the Chicago Tribune in 1977, shortly before “Batcolumn” was signed. “That’s the adventure: taking a very impure object and seeing it as pure. That’s the pleasure.”
Many of Oldenburg’s later works were produced in collaboration with his second wife, van Bruggen, a Dutch-born art historian, artist and critic whom he married in 1977. The previous year she had him helped install his 41-foot “Trowel I”. on the grounds of the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands.
Van Bruggen died in January 2009.
Oldenburg’s first wife, Pat, also an artist, helped him during their marriage in the 1960s, sewing his soft sculptures.
While Oldenburg remained in New York after moving there in 1956, he occasionally lived in France and California.